Monday, August 22, 2016

#188: The Game-Players of Titan, #12: 2001: A Space Odyssey

The Game-Players of Titan:

"Wives, Schilling thought. More of a problem than an asset. The economic aspect of our lives should never have been melded hopelessly with the sexual; it makes things too complex."
" 'Did you have a psychotic episode tonight?'
   'Not by a long shot. I had a moment of absolute truth.' "
"But greed not so bad; it's the prime motivating pressure of the self-system. Psychologically speaking."
Being a long-time Philip K. Dick fan, I tend to feel at home when I crack open a new PKD novel to read. Granted, that home is usually a place of drug-addled, psychedelic confusion, but of course, if you've read a few PKD novels, you already know that. The Game-Players of Titan does not deviate radically from the rather wide-ranging set of tropes that PKD usually writes about --yes, there are drugs; yes, there are mysterious aliens; yes, psychosis figures heavily into the plot; yes, there is a vindictive and somewhat nasty female character involved. And, as always, PKD casts us into a truly original story in order to explore his usual themes.
This time around, as is often the case, we find ourselves on a near-future Earth (sometime around the 2100s) where things have changed dramatically. Earth has lost a war with the inhabitants of Titan (the largest moon of Saturn) and is now, more or less, occupied territory. The vast majority of Earth's inhabitants have apparently been rendered sterile by radiation from a weapon used by the Red Chinese many decades ago. As a result, only a few million people remain on Earth, and the population is not being replenished. The "vugs" --the Titanian race that defeated Earth a while back, who appear in the form of amorphous blobs-- make appearances here and there, but for the most part, it seems that the defeated Earthlings are left to their own devices. What many of them do is play a game called Bluff, a board game that, as its name suggests, involves bluffing your opponents effectively in order to win the most loot. At stake in these games are entire towns, large amounts of money, and spouses.
At the novel's inception, PKD drops us in on Pete Garden, who was just lost Berkeley, California and his wife Freya in a game of Bluff. Pete is very much a typical PKD protagonist (and, I suspect, very much like PKD himself). He's not a bad guy, but he's a mess, mentally. He's suicidal, he's on a ton of pills, and he seems to lack direction in life. His luck doesn't change when, soon after his big loss, Pete finds out that Jerome Luckman --one of the best and luckiest Bluff players in the U.S-- comes to join his cohort. Into all of this, PKD sprinkles talking, sentient cars (which are generally nastier than the taxi cab in PKD's Now Wait for Last Year), telepaths, pre-cogs, and a character with psychokinesis. Then, a murder occurs, an instance of mass amnesia conveniently crops up, and we're off to the races.
In the first two-thirds or so of the novel, The Game-Players of Titan reads like a more rushed version of Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Murder mystery is a sub-genre that fits PKD's skill set very well, and I think the great use of suspense and all-around craziness we find here (and in Flow My Tears) confirms this fact. Once again, PKD keeps us guessing --but if one has read enough PKD, one knows that none of one's guesses are likely to be totally correct. His knack for making the reader paranoid about every character (including, and especially, the lens character), even paranoid about the nature of reality itself, is once again on display here. Furthermore PKD's world building --quick and casually done, yet complex and full of minor clues and hints as to what's really going on-- is, as always, a joy to behold. PKD often gets done in the first 50 pages what most writers fail to do in an entire book: create a quirky, detailed world that feels real, yet somehow wrong, plastic, fake, at the same time.
As I mentioned, this novel certainly feels rushed, and for this reason, I don't think it makes it to the upper echelon of PKD works. There are some repetitive moments that make this novel feel very much like a hastily written first draft (which many of PKD's novels are), as well as some awkward, clunky lines and sentences. Some scenes feel rushed, even given the already-frantic pace of the novel. In addition, (although this is to be expected to some degree in PKD novels) things get overwhelmingly twisted and confusing at a few points, as the characters are buffeted by the forces of drugs, aliens, and psychic power. Overall, there are some points where PKD could have given us a bit more clarity, while still maintaining a certain sense of disorientation in his readers. This is very much a personal judgment call, though, so I wouldn't be surprised to have a different opinion the next time I read this book.
One part of this novel that especially stood out to me was the way that psychosis so clearly becomes an avenue to a certain kind of truth and a certain kind of good. When Pete Garden figures out how to beat the Titanians at their own game, near the novel's conclusion, I said to myself, "This is the most PKD solution to a problem that you'll ever encounter." Mental illness's close relation to telepathy in this novel is simply vintage PKD. I also enjoyed the hints at Lacanian/ Hegellian philosophies of self-formation in some of the more psychedelic scenes in the novel. As always, PKD shows that he is well-versed in philosophy, and isn't just throwing together a bunch of random ideas that pop into his head...although it might seem that way sometimes.
I enjoyed The Game-Players of Titan, and I think it's a worthwhile read, but I'm not sure it has enough depth to be comparable to the best of PKD's work. There's an enigmatic, somewhat frustrating open-ended conclusion (unlike Flow My Tears, which, as I've said, seemly like a more fully formed version of this novel) and we don't really get enough explanation of what actually happened. For example, the two factions of Titanians could have been explained a bit better. I also think that Nats Katz and the characters in Pretty Blue Fox could have been sketched out a little more; Joe Schilling, Freya, the McClains and Pete seemed to be the only characters with real depth. All this considered, I still had fun reading this novel. It's quick, it's jarring, and it's darkly humorous; and I think it's certainly worth taking a look at.

2001: A Space Odyssey:

"Someone had once said that you could be terrified in space, but you could not be worried there. It was perfectly true."
"The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry, or depressing its contents seemed to be."
"Any man who had ever worked in a hardened missile site would have felt at home in Clavius. Here on the Moon were the same arts and hardware of underground living, and of protection against a hostile environment; but here they had been turned to the purposes of peace. After ten thousand years, Man had at last found something as exciting as war. Unfortunately, not all nations had yet realized that fact."
I've often heard 2001: A Space Odyssey cited as the movie that reinvented what it meant to be a sci-fi movie. Without this landmark film, some have argued, we would not have Star Wars or Blade Runner. Indeed, the jump that one makes when one watches 2001 right after a typical 1950's sci-fi B-movie is immense. The superb sense of mystery, the ground-breaking special effects, the rightly famous score all do their parts to produce a film that was like nothing 1960s movie-goers had ever seen before... and frankly, I could go on and on about how much I like the film. Of course, the film isn't for everyone, but I've long counted myself a fan. Going into my first read of the novel, I had heard the same thing from several sources --the novel rides the film's coattails to a certain degree. Let's be clear: this is certainly true. But I also want to be clear in stressing that this is still a worthwhile read in its own right --even if, and actually especially if, you have seen and enjoyed the film.
The plot of the novel is essentially identical to that of the film. We open on a prehistorical scene: man-apes struggle to survive, a mysterious alien monolith appears out of nowhere, and things start to change. I actually thought that the novel treated this episode slightly better than the film --here we want a bit of explanation as to what is going on, and we actually get a decent amount of it. The monolith seems to be the reason for Man's consciousness. In a move that David Brin seems to have imitated in his Uplift novels, the aliens (through their monolith device) toy with the minds of the man-apes and get them thinking bigger, using tools, et cetera. In essence, they are setting them up on the path to the stars.
The next episode occurs three million years in the future --around the year 2001, or perhaps a bit before. Mankind has set up a few permanent settlements on the Moon, and, we soon find out, just discovered a mysterious monolith buried beneath its surface. No one seems to know its purpose, but everyone seems to agree that this monolith is the product of nonhuman intelligence. Next, we shift to an important ship's quest to the moons of Saturn, seemingly a few months after the revelation on the Moon, where we meet David Bowman, the infamous HAL 9000, and a few other crew members. I won't spoil too much of the main plot of the novel beyond saying that here, I think the movie's mystery perhaps works better than the novel's occasional over-explanation (I'm particularly thinking of Dave's psychedelic journey in this case). Of course, the visual medium might have the intrinsic advantage over the page in displaying such a strange journey, but I can't help but thinking that Clarke could have laid off a bit of the explanation on the final part of Dave's journey...And there's also the distinct possibility that seeing the film first has biased me in this way. To be sure, it's still a fun ride, and we still can't quite call the ending a true "conclusion", just as in the film.
Furthermore, I'd like to note that there was a certain Platonic flavor to the evolution, or biological ascent, that Clarke describes the monolith-makers undergoing. It's surreal and mysterious, yet fascinating to read about --a description I could apply to much of this novel and the film that it is based on. And while we are on the topic of comparison, I found the concluding sections of this novel to be very much in tune with Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker, both in theme and content. Clarke was an admirer of Stapledon's, and I think that he did quite well in following in the old master's footsteps here. 2001:A Space Odyssey doesn't quite reach the level of grandeur that Star Maker does, but then again, very few, if any, works of science fiction do.
Overall, I thought that Clarke shined throughout this quick, fun (and often funny), thought-provoking read. He tells us in his Introduction that Stanley Kubrick wanted a "theme of mythic grandeur" for this story, and I think both film and novel fulfill this description with gusto. 2001: A Space Odyssey shows us that there is nothing as mysterious and awe-inspiring as the vastness of space, and also that there is nothing as horrible as being totally alone in it, surrounded by its silence and its emptiness. Yet this story also encourages its exploration, perhaps the only way to conquer these potential horrors, and certainly a cure for some deep and un-extinguishable drive found within the hearts of Men.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

#19: Hyperion, #203: Life, the Universe, and Everything


"I understand now the need for faith --pure, blind, fly-in-the-face-of-reason faith --as a small life preserver in the wild and endless sea of a universe ruled by unfeeling laws and totally indifferent to the small, reasoning beings that inhabit it."
"Belief in one's identity as a poet or writer prior to the acid test of publication is as naive and harmless as the youthful belief in one's immortality...and the inevitable disillusionment is just as painful."
" 'I'm going to ask you a question I've asked about a million times since I was two. Do you believe in God?' Sol had not smiled. He had no choice but to give her the answer he had given her a million times. 'I'm waiting to.' " 
"She had always felt that the essence of human experience lay not primarily in the peak experiences, the wedding days and triumphs which stood out in the memory likes dates circled in red on old calendars, but, rather, in the unself-conscious flow of little things --the weekend afternoon with each member of the family engaged in his or her own pursuit, their crossings and connections casual, dialogues imminently forgettable, but the sum of such hours creating a synergy which was important and eternal."
It's impossible to say that Dan Simmons doesn't shoot for the moon. The first novel I read by him, Ilium, was a science fiction retelling of one of western literature's most beloved works, The Iliad. He knocked it out of the park --I was engrossed with the complex and rich plot, and flew through its dense 800 pages as quickly as I have any other book of such length. With Hyperion, the second Simmons novel I have read, he takes on another monumental work in western literature: The Canterbury Tales. The analogy here is a bit more loose; characters from the Tales don't show up in Hyperion by name, but still, the basic plot structure remains --a group of pilgrims in traveling together, and they share their stories with one another. This time, however, we're in the 28th century, mankind has colonized several hundred worlds, and an ominous and powerful creature known as the Shrike haunts every story that is told. Each pilgrim is traveling to Hyperion as the galaxy is on the brink of war to confront the deadly Shrike in some way.
From the beginning, Simmons' world-building is rich and highly detailed. As in Ilium, I was impressed over and over again with his prodigious, Stapledonian imagination. The guy is quite simply a volcano of beautiful, original, creative SF ideas and it's often a joy to behold. I might go so far as to say that at times it can be too much at times; Simmons creates worlds that are so detailed that we get distracted from the main plot at times... his tangents and off-hand details are too interesting sometimes and we're left wanting, begging, to know more.
Simmons' powerful imagination (and impressive technical skill) is on display in each of the six tales that the pilgrims tell. The fact that each has its own impressive cast of characters serves to make Hyperion astoundingly full of great and interesting personalities; even for a 500 page novel. We start with the Priest's Tale, a deep, mysterious, and highly disturbing story that reminded me a bit of the British television show, The Prisoner, with the sense of dread and paranoia that it produces. I'll admit, after finishing this first tale, I was so impressed that I asked myself, How the hell will Simmons top this one? We're supposed to choose our favorite tale, I think, but how will he manage to beat this one? (More to come on this in a moment...)
Next up was the Soldier's Tale, an ultra-violent, tense story told with hallucinatory intensity. It took a while to get going, given how we're thrown into a strange plot-line and forced to figure out what's going on, but this one was quite well-done as well.
After this is the Poet's Tale, which is told in an often-humorous, highly engaging, first-person voice. It's peppered with literary references, and it's arguably the most "literary" of the tales. Martin Silenus, the poet, is one of my favorite characters in the novel, a true artist's artist, an unapologetic truth-teller, and a man with an intriguing relationship with the deadly Shrike. We never learn more about this particular facet in Hyperion, but there are several sequels, so I hope to read more about this relationship in the future. It was one of the most interesting parts of the novel for me, given the murderous, chaotic ways of the Shrike.
The Scholar's Tale is a more moving, personal story. It focuses on a scholar and his wife after a strange accident befalls their daughter. As she is studying the Time Tombs on the world of Hyperion (supposedly the lair of the Shrike), Rachel Weintraub falls unconscious and begins aging backwards. Each day, she loses another day of memory; another day of aging. Taking care of her becomes increasing tough for her parents, who grow older as their daughter grows younger. This one isn't as flashy as the ones before it, but it delivers a real emotional depth, and it showcases Simmons's versatility wonderfully.
Next is the Detective's Tale, which somehow manages to up the ante again, revealing bigger stakes in play for the entire pilgrimage. This one reminded me quite a bit of Ilium in the way it incorporates figures from the Western Canon of literature in an incredibly creative and weird way. Although I wasn't particularly fond of its narrator at the beginning, she grew on me as this complex story progressed.
Finally, we have the Consul's Tale, which jumps around in time, but manages to stay quite coherent throughout. For most of the Tale, we don't actually know who the protagonist is, but when the story concludes, we have a big answer to a question that has been lingering throughout the novel. Like the Detective's Tale, there is romance and intrigue here, and once again, Simmons manages it all with a deft hand.
The novel concludes on a frustrating cliffhanger, which I supposed is my one, half-assed complaint about it. What I can say is that it made me excited to read The Fall of Hyperion in the near future, so I suppose it isn't really a "complaint", per se... I just think novels should have a bit more closure than this, even if they are a part of a series.
The overall verdict on Hyperion is that it is an incredible book, with a seeming universe packed into 500 pages. Certain tales (the Priest's and the Poet's) outshine others (the Consul's and the Soldier's) for me, but all of them have their merits. There is a reason why a major publishing imprint is now named after this novel --Dan Simmon's imagination and impressive technical skill are both on display here and together they confirm his status as one of the best SF authors alive.

Life, the Universe, and Everything:

"...there's nothing that depresses me more than seeing a planet being destroyed. Except possibly still being on it when it happens."
"Numbers written on restaurant checks within the confines of restaurants do not follow the same mathematical laws as numbers written on any other pieces of paper in any other parts of the Universe."
" 'But unless we determine to take action,' said the old man querulously, as if struggling against something deeply insouciant in his nature, 'then we shall all be destroyed; we shall all die. Surely we care about that?' 'Not enough to get killed over it,' said Ford."
It's weird to think that a book with a somewhat concrete plot could be viewed as an anomaly within a series. But nevertheless, this was the resounding, lasting impression that I got from Life, The Universe, and Everything. Sure, we get a lot of the usual Adams off-the-wall insanity and digression in this one, but we also get a more traditional central plot-line that lends more structure to the novel than either of its predecessors.
Life, the Universe, and Everything opens up about five years after The Restaurant at the End of the Universe ended, with Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect still strained in a prehistoric wilderness, bored and miserable. As is common in the Hitchhiker's Trilogy, things do not remain grounded in the same place for too long after the novel opens. Time travel comes back into play, mysterious, long-forgotten objects pop into existence with regularity, and eventually Ford and Arthur find themselves guests on the ship Bistromath, an interstellar cruiser that operates not on traditional math, but on the sort of garbled, nonsensical math that one finds on a restaurant bills. Due to this, it can shoot across the greatest distances of time and space with ease, or even travel into other dimensions.
Ford and Arthur soon learn from the pilot of Bistromath, Slartibartfast, that an old galactic menace has resurfaced. Long ago, the pleasant, but utterly xenophobic people of Krikkit terrorized the Universe, destroying everything that did not come from their planet. After a long battle, the Krikkiters were locked away from the rest of the Universe in an impenetrable Slo-Time envelope. The key to the envelope was destroyed and its fragments were dispersed across the space time continuum. However, a team of Krikkit's robot fighters has resurfaced recently, and they are quickly finding pieces of the key and rebuilding it. No one seems to be able to stop them.
While the quest to stop the robots from rebuilding the key is the main preoccupation of Arthur, Ford, and Slartibartfast throughout the novel, there are also plenty of hilarious digressions. Whereas these digressions took up the bulk of the previous two novels, Adams seems a bit more focused more here. While this made for more enjoyable reading on a very basic level (you actually have something unified to follow for more than 20 pages!), this one was not quite as uproariously funny as the first two books in the series for the same reason.
In the end it comes down to personal preference: if you want funnier books that you might not always understand (and rightly so, by my estimation!), you'll enjoy the first two novels in the series more. But if you want a novel with more of a fleshed out, sustained plot, you'll enjoy this one the most. I read the Hitchhiker's Trilogy for the laughs, rather than the nifty plotlines, so my own preference was for the first two.
However, I must stress, this book is still extremely funny. Just because it might not measure up to the standards of the first two is in no way an indictment of the novel as a whole. The Bistromath concept was great, but my favorite concept in the entire novel may have been the four-generation-long party in the sky. The idea that sets up the scene, as well as the execution of the scene itself had me laughing out loud quite a bit. Arthur Dent's confrontation with Agrajag is also clever, funny, and puzzling all at once. I think you could use those three adjectives to describe everything I've read by Adams, in fact.
While the conclusion of the novel was a bit abrupt, I've come to expect this from the series. Adams isn't one for consistent, satisfying endings, but if you've made it this far, you've learned to accept it. For anyone who enjoyed the first two books in the series, I would certainly recommend taking a look at this one as well, because despite some of my observations, it really isn't radically different from the first two books in the series. Here, there are more laughs to be had, more mayhem to witness, and more paradoxical, puzzling little tidbits to annoy, amuse, and confuse you. Like the others, it's nothing short of a hoot.